WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States has no plans to expand its air campaign in Iraq beyond protecting American personnel in the city of Arbil and besieged Yazidi refugees, the Pentagon said on Monday.
"There are no plans to expand the current air campaign beyond the current self defence activities," Lieutenant General William Mayville told reporters at the Pentagon.
Last week, US warplanes launched strikes to beat back extremist fighters from the so-called Islamic State who had threatened to massacre the Yazidi religious minority and attack Arbil.
Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, hosts a US consulate and other facilities, and President Barack Obama said he had ordered air strikes to protect American lives.
Meanwhile, US planes joined Iraqi forces in attempting to bring aid to thousands of Yazidis trapped on an exposed mountain and under attack by the IS militants who had driven them from their homes.
On Monday, the Pentagon said US fighter jets had carried out four strikes on IS checkpoints and vehicles around Mount Sinjar in "defence of internally displaced Yazidi civilians in the area". The strikes destroyed an IS armoured vehicle, three trucks and a US-built Humvee - presumably a vehicle IS militants had seized from Iraqi army stocks when they over-ran the north of the country.
The sight of US jets and drones in action over Iraq again, less than three years after American forces withdrew from the country, has raised fears that Washington is once again being dragged into war.
But Mayville insisted that there had been no mission creep.
"Our principal task to date, and what we are doing right now, is to protect US facilities and the citizens - American citizens - at those facilities," he said In addition, he said, the mission was "to protect US aircraft that are supporting humanitarian assistance around Mount Sinjar and to target those ISIL positions that are laying siege to Mount Sinjar". There have been reports that US or allied forces might attempt to open a humanitarian corridor to Sinjar to rescue refugees en masse, but Mayville stressed that the situation was "complicated".
"We are right now gripped by the immediacy of the crisis, and our focus right now is to provide immediate relief to those that are suffering," he said.
"We are looking at the effect that we're having on those fixed sites, those ISIL sites laying siege, and we are trying to reduce that threat. And for the near term, that's going to be our focus." US and Iraqi aircraft have managed to drop some aid to Yazidi refugees, and others have been rescued by Iraqi helicopters or Kurdish troops - but many more are thought to be trapped.
Mayville said US aircraft had flown "between 50 and 60 sorties per day" since the start of the operation on Thursday last week, but did not say how many were aid drops and how many deadly strikes.